Blog Directory CineVerse: 2021

An empress on the outs

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Palace intrigue pictures and period costume dramas have entertained audiences for generations. A recent standout in this subgenre is Farewell, My Queen, which uses the last days of the French monarchy as a backdrop for a tale about a commoner determined to serve her endangered queen Marie Antoinette. This film got the CineVerse treatment last week, with numerous opinions given and observations made during our group discussion (which you can listen to here). Here’s a summary of our conversation:

What did you find notable, unexpected, distinctive, or satisfying about Farewell, My Queen?

  • The setting is the start of the French Revolution, but we aren’t shown any beheadings or violence. For that matter, the story is entirely told from the perspective of the queen’s faithful servants, particularly her reader Sidonie.
  • This is not a story about Marie Antoinette – it’s about one of her servants and the way that monarchs use their power, and the access they grant to that power, to create a hierarchical structure in which power dynamics can shift depending on how close you are to the king or queen.
  • Also, this is not an action narrative: it’s a reaction narrative, in which suspense and intrigue are built by following the reactions of the queen’s servants to an impending revolution.
  • The camera seems to be voyeuristically prowling about, as evidenced by how it follows Sidonie around (often from behind) and lingers on bustiers, cleavage, and naked bodies. While it’s doubtful that the filmmakers were trying to be prurient and exploitative, the way the lens focuses on the female form suggests perhaps that this is a male-dominated society in which females were treated as objects.

Themes at work

  • The contrast between the haves and have-nots. Farewell, My Queen depicts the opulence and decadence of the royal household versus the grimy, tainted banality of the commoners’ and peons’ habitats. We see the power, privilege, and wealth that the monarchy commands compared to the relative lack of agency, freedom, and resources that the Queen’s subjects possess.
    • Slant magazine’s Jesse Cataldo wrote: “Control is the operative element in Benoît Jacquot’s work, with the main caveat being that when someone has it, someone else does not. This prevailing concept sets the stage for detailed examinations of interpersonal power dynamics, presented as games or struggles, with an acute eye toward the roles and responsibilities of women.”
    • Likewise, we see imagery and hear evidence of vermin and pests like rats, mosquitoes, and spiders representing the inability of the royal household to remain pure, clean, and unblemished and signifying impending doom and decay.
  • Running out of time. We know from the dates given that it’s only a matter of time before heads will roll and the monarchy comes crashing down in France. This film depicts a handful of days that lead up to those monumental events, and the predominant symbol at work is the royal clock lent to Sidonie; once that clock is stolen, order and structure begin to collapse and the countdown to the end of an era for the royalty and its court begins. The takeaway? Nothing lasts forever, especially something created by human beings, who are fallible and impermanent.
  • The secret lives of women both powerful and unpowerful in a world controlled by men. Farewell, My Queen features predominantly female characters, shining a spotlight on the private passions, proclivities, and lifestyles of women just prior to the French Revolution. Interestingly, Sidonie begins the film as a servant but ends it as a survivor, outliving her female counterparts. Consider, also, that Sidonie appears to have a young crush on the queen and demonstrates her undying fealty to Marie Antoinette.

Similar works

  • Previous films about or featuring Marie Antoinette as a character, including Madame Du Barry (1934), Marie Antoinette (1938), and The Affair of the Necklace (2001), and Marie Antoinette (2006)
  • A Royal Affair (2012)
  • The Duchess (2008)
  • The Girl King (2015)
  • The Favourite (2018)
  • The Lady and the Duke (2001)
  • The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Other works by Benoit Jacquot

  • La Désenchantée
  • A Single Girl
  • Deep In the Woods
  • Three Hearts
  • Diary of a Chambermaid

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Dark Star: a dark horse but lightweight sci-fi

Monday, July 12, 2021

Sandwiched uncomfortably between the chasm that was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977), John Carpenter’s fledgling directorial debut Dark Star attempts to put a comedic touch on previous Kubrickian ideas while also foreshadowing the blue-collar space truckin’ sensibilities of Alien. It’s a bit of a cosmic mess, and the low-tech visual effects, amateurish acting, and abrupt tonal shifts do little to improve matters. Still, Dark Star is a film rippling with interesting ideas, imagery, and memorable bits that will be explored in later genre pictures. Our CineVerse band took a test flight last week and came away with the following impressions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):


Similar works

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Star Trek
  • THX 1138, which also began as a student film
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Ray Bradbury’s short story Kaleidoscope
  • Alien
  • Star Wars
  • Moon
  • Sci-fi comedies like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Spaceballs

What did you find unexpected, distinctive, or surprising about Dark Star?

  • This looks to be just a few rungs above a student film on the production value, acting, and screenplay scale. Filmmakers John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon began this production as a short while they were college students; they were given more money by a producer to add more scenes and pad out the length to feature film runtime, with a final budget clocking in at around $60,000. Despite this paltry price tag, the collaborators were able to accomplish some impressive feats, even for 1974 film standards and special effects expectations.
  • The influences here are obvious (especially Kubrick works), but Dark Star also would have inspired Star Wars, Alien, and subsequent sci-fil films, especially with its depiction of traveling through hyperspace and its notion of an escaped alien loose on the ship wreaking havoc.
  • This is a rare work of sci-fi comedy. On its surface, this seems to be a sobering drama, but quickly we pick up comedic sensibilities, jokes, and humorous bits, which makes it easier to accept the budgetary and visual effect shortcomings.

Themes at work

  • Existentialism (exploring the nature of the human condition and existence), epistemology (investigating what distinguishes justified belief from opinion), and applied philosophy (like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”). Doolittle arguing with a sentiment bomb capable of artificial intelligence, trying to dissuade it from detonating based on logic, serves as a spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its exploration of AI’s ability to surpass humans.
  • Ennui, regardless of the setting or milieu. Director John Carpenter described this story as “Waiting for Godot in space,” and “truck drivers in space.” These are everyday, blue-collar Joes who have grown bored with their mission, despite its huge significance and the grandiosity of their surroundings. This isn’t some noble quest or giant leap for mankind; these are clock-punchers hired to pave a clear path on the cosmic superhighway.
  • Cosmic irony. Having to rationalize and debate philosophical notions with a sentient but stubborn bomb, destroying rather than exploring new worlds in a routine of mindless violence, being millions of miles from Earth without toilet paper, and getting humiliated and outfoxed by a silly extraterrestrial gasbag of a pet are among the sardonic statements being made by the filmmakers, who seem intent to de-glamorize the supposed allure and prestige of space travel.
  • The inability to escape our inherent human condition. It is in our nature as humans to destroy things, argue, fight, become bored and complacent, take things for granted, and abuse or neglect what we regard as lower life forms.
  • The hard work required to achieve rugged individualism. Slant Magazine reviewer Simon Abrams wrote: “The fact that there’s no logical way to not emotionally malfunction aboard the Dark Star speaks to the film’s central egocentrism: everybody has to do everything themselves, even the Smart Bomb that obliterates the ship after it reasons that it is, in fact, God: ‘The only thing that exists is My Self’…Dark Star remains one of the best expressions of that quest for personal freedom because it was principally created by two artists that define themselves by their own fierce intellect and staunch individualism.”

Other films by John Carpenter

  • Halloween
  • Escape From New York
  • The Thing
  • Starman
  • They Live
  • In the Mouth of Madness

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75 years of the best lives (and a great film)

Monday, July 5, 2021

William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, took home Oscar gold for Best Picture, preventing It's a Wonderful Life from claiming a wonderful prize. But if you're going to lose out to another picture at the Academy Awards, you could do a lot worse than be bested by this William Wyler classic, probably the best cinematic story ever told about soldiers and veterans returning home from wartime. CineVerse did its patriotic duty this past Independence Day week by examining this movie. Here's a recap of our group discussion (to listen to a recording of it, click here).

How would this film have been perceived as groundbreaking and perhaps controversial upon its release in post-World War II 1946?

  • It addressed, for the first time in an American feature film, the sensitive cultural, social, and psychological issues faced by returning veterans and their families.
    • These issues include adultery, alcoholism, ostracism, unemployment, callous corporate practices, a hostile work environment, and problems in a marriage that appear perfect on the surface.
  • It’s fascinating to hear Al’s son talk about the threat of nuclear annihilation and the start of the Cold War; this would have been one of the first Hollywood films to do so.
  • The Best Years of Our Lives notably also uses a disabled man (in this case, Harold Russell, an amputee with no professional acting background) to poignantly tell its story—and without relying on circus sideshow sensationalism or exaggerated dramatic effect.
  • This was nearly twice the length of average movies at the time—a runtime that risked losing audience interest. There is also no intermission.
  • Framed within the context of World War II and its aftermath, the movie avoids using any flashback combat scenes or action; it’s purely a human drama about real-life issues.
  • In making this motion picture, with three diverging narratives about veterans adjusting to postwar life at home, the filmmakers were taking a big risk; that’s because the Hollywood studios thought viewers were tired of movies about the war by this time. But The Best Years of Our Lives went on to become the highest-grossing movie of the entire 1940s, proving that audiences emotionally connected with these stories and appreciated the issues and characters explored.

Master cinematographer Gregg Toland, famous for his camera work on Citizen Kane, employed deep focus photography throughout the movie. Can you cite a few examples of this technique in the film and why the use of deep focus was the right choice for those scenes?

  • Al’s homecoming to his wife and kids: Framed within the deep hallway, we see him embrace his son, daughter, and then his wife at a distance without employing any cuts.
  • Fred’s important phone call from the bar: presented as a background detail with Homer and Butch playing piano in the extreme foreground—with no cuts or camera movement.
  • The marriage ceremony: We observe two parallel lines of action (Homer and Wilma, Fred and Peggy) on opposite sides of the room, which creates emotional distance yet longing.
  • The filmmakers also utilize deep focus and long takes instead of cutting to medium shots or close-ups that normally break up a scene; this strategy allows many scenes to unfold organically and enables the performers to show their acting chops.

How do you interpret the movie’s title? Is it an ironic or cynical comment, or is it sincere and hopeful?

  • It could be referring to the possibility that many veterans had to give “the best years of their lives” to the military and our cause in WWII.
  • Or, it could be referring to the possibility that the best years of the servicemen’s lives were during wartime, and they experienced more challenging times of a different kind when they returned home.
  • Possibly it's suggesting that the veterans' best years are ahead of them.

Similar films

  • Coming Home
  • Home of the Brave
  • Born on the 4th of July
  • The Deer Hunter
  • Heroes
  • The Manchurian Candidate
  • Forrest Gump

Other films by William Wyler

  • Wuthering Heights
  • Jezebel
  • The Westerner
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Roman Holiday
  • Ben-Hur

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CineVerse moderator makes another appearance on Monster Kid Radio

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Your friendly neighborhood CineVerse moderator, Erik Martin, made another guest appearance on a podcast recently. This time, it was a return visit to Monster Kid Radio, a show that celebrates classic horror films of yesteryear. Erik and podcast host Derek Koch engage in a deep discussion of Fritz Lang's timeless masterwork "M," starring Peter Lorre.

To hear this podcast episode, click here.

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Speaking the universal language of loss and love

Monday, June 28, 2021

We can usually sniff out cloying, over-dramatized, sentimentalized, and implausible family dynamics in movies pretty easily, as these bad filmmaker habits unfortunately persist. That’s why it’s refreshing to experience a picture like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which depicts the universality of navigating troublesome familial terrain with such admirable dexterity. CineVerse had the pleasure of parsing through this film two weeks ago (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here), and a précis of our conversation follows.

What did you find revelatory, refreshing, remarkable, or original about The Farewell?

  • It isn’t afraid to tackle a thorny topic like death and family grief with sincerity and realism (evoked from the personal experiences of the director and her grandmother, whose cancer diagnosis was hidden from the grandmother by the director’s extended family) but also with humor and grace. Ponder how, despite being a three-hanky-type movie, there are several comical scenes and funny bits.
    • Movie reviewer James Berardinelli wrote: “It’s probably strange to call a movie about illness and death a ‘feel-good experience,’ but Wang has pitched the film perfectly in this regard. Movies about cancer almost always involve chemotherapy and suffering. Movies about death are often suffused with grief and sorrow. The Farewell eschews those genre tropes and instead focuses on existential issues while being honest about the characters, their situations, and their reality. The end result is life-affirming and the average viewer is likely to leave the film feeling uplifted.”
    • Film critic Christy Lemire wrote” In sharing her story with us, Wang achieves a masterful tonal balance throughout “The Farewell.” She’s made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés. She finds a variety of moments for her actors to shine within a large ensemble cast. And she’s pulled off one of the most perfect endings you’ll ever see.”
  • The filmmakers don’t seem to have an agenda here; they appear to be telling the story without bias, preachiness, or judgment about whether Eastern values or Western values should take priority; the film isn’t casting aspersions about “sins of the father visited upon his child,” or trying to play into the paradigm that each subsequent generation improves upon the one before it. Even less sympathetic characters like Billi’s mother are given well-rounded treatment (we later see her mother tearing up after they bid farewell to Nai Nai, for instance).
  • There is a possibility that Nai Nai figures out that she has cancer but has decided to not talk about it. Consider that she also obscured the truth about her husband’s terminal cancer from him, and she appears to be sharp and observant.
  • The film opens with an ironic disclaimer: “Based on an actual lie.” These words run contrary to what we have come to expect from films that instead start with the words: “Based on a true story.” By bookending the movie with these words and, at the conclusion, footage of the director’s real-life grandma (who survived her bout with cancer), we benefit from more intimate and honest storytelling, entrusting Lulu Wang and her collaborators to give us some truth about their real-life experiences.

Themes woven into The Farewell

  • Bridging cultural and generational divides. Billi serves as a surrogate for the audience, our guide on this journey between three generations, two cultures (East versus West), and two countries, America and China, which she has both called home at one point. Billi’s return to the homeland of her birth results in culture shock, as she sees how much things have changed in China since she was a child, yet she’s happy to be reuniting with her extended family – although not under the best circumstances.
    • Interestingly, the filmmakers have characters who speak and sing in both Mandarin and English and use Chinese-performed covers of American songs.
  • The morality of whether it’s better to lie and spare someone from worry and suffering or tell them the truth, which they have a right to know. The movie challenges you to ask yourself: What would you do in this situation if you were Billi?
  • Coming to grips with our mortality and the unavoidability of loss and grief.
  • Reconciling the present with the past. Billi is wistful about her childhood memories of her grandmother and living in China. But she has to accept that time has moved on and her grandmother isn’t always going to be there for her.

Similar films

  • Ikiru
  • 50/50
  • Tuesdays With Morrie
  • Terms of Endearment
  • The Bucket List

Other films by Lulu Wang

  • Posthumous

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Still Jonesing for adventure 4 decades later

Thursday, June 17, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #36, host Erik Martin is joined by James Kendrick, Baylor University film professor and author of Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the greatest action/adventure movie of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Together, Erik and James explore deep and dark caves, pits, tombs, and catacombs of conversation in their analysis of Raiders, examining why the film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, and more. 
James Kendrick

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at anchor.fm/cineversary and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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"Room" for improvement

Monday, June 14, 2021

Widely regarded as one of the biggest cinematic turkeys of all time, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has become a cult hit and midnight movie favorite over the past several years. Interestingly, it spawned a biopic directed by and starring James Franco called The Disaster Artist that serves as a nice companion piece to The Room and a not-so-distant cousin to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic from 1994.

The CineVerse stalwarts parsed through both of the former films last week and found the exercise a real hoot (to listen to our group discussion, click here), choosing to frame our conversation less around the merits of these two movies and more on the pleasures of “so-bad-they’re good” flicks. Here’s a roundup of some of our talking points.
 

What was unexpected, surprising, memorable, or distinctive about The Disaster Artist?

  • James Franco directed this film and stars opposite his brother Dave (who plays Greg). In fact, James Franco has helmed 16 other features and short films.
  • There are many cameos, celebrity appearances, and big names in small parts within The Disaster Artist, including by Seth Rogan, Judd Apatow, Kristen Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Scott, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Cranston, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, and Bob Odenkirk.
  • Interestingly, the film provides a prologue (of real filmmakers and actors talking about The Room) and an epilogue (shot-for-shot comparisons of The Room vs. The Disaster Artist).
  • This was not an unauthorized biopic. Wiseau himself approved of this movie.
  • While most of this film depicts the actual making of The Room and constitutes much of the comedy of The Disaster Artist, the heart of this picture is the relationship explored between Tommy and Greg and the extent to which their success and happiness or lack thereof are intertwined.
  • This is another modern example of a meta film (a film about a film).

Similar films

  • Ed Wood
  • Bowfinger
  • Living in Oblivion
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • The Producers
  • Best F(R)Iends

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The wheel deal

Monday, June 7, 2021


Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves never ages, never overstays its welcome, never fails to hit a bullseye in the center of the chest. These qualities are a testament to the unimpeachable quality of a film consistently voted one of the very finest ever made, one ripe for rediscovery every few years.

Our CineVerse group gripped the handlebars and took a ride on this 73-year-old movie last week, and we found that it was just like riding a bike—you simply don’t forget how to enjoy a timeless classic. An outline of our discussion points is found below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to listen to a Cineversary podcast episode celebrating this picture’s 70th birthday, click here).

What did you find interesting, memorable, distinctive, or different about Bicycle Thieves?

  • There is not much action or plot: This is a very simple but effective narrative that evokes a strong emotional reaction in viewers primarily from its visual poetry and nonverbal storytelling.
  • The actors playing the father and son, as well as nearly everyone else in the cast, are not professionals—these are just everyday people. Yet, marvel at how expressive their faces are and how natural their acting—or nonacting, in this case—is.
  • The character of the stalwart and compassionate Bruno, the son, and what we see him observe and react to, is what helps lend the film extra power and resonance.
  • The picture attempts to make a political statement—that we should be more concerned with our fellow man and that a fairer political system should exist that provides greater opportunities to everyday people. Yet the film is not so much about the hardships of poverty or the quest to reclaim a stolen bike but rather the relationship between a father and his boy.
    • Ultimately, Bicycle Thieves succeeds and impacts us so strongly because we identify and sympathize with Antonio and Bruno, even though they don’t overemote or speechify. We see them as they truly are, and it is their behavior and unspoken actions that inform us about them. Antonio is taken down a peg in front of his son, which is heartbreaking and universally appreciated, regardless of the time, place, or ethnicity.

What elements of Italian neorealism are prevalent in Bicycle Thieves?

  • Like earlier films in the Italian neorealism subgenre, this picture is shot in near documentary style, on location and often using nonfactors/nonprofessionals.
  • The subjects are typically working-class people and the impoverished.
  • The messages of neorealism films are often bleak, realistic, and plausibly pessimistic—without any sentimentalizing, glossy coating, or tacked-on happy endings. These films don’t give us black and white, good vs. evil tropes: even the young bicycle thief himself is depicted as the victim of poverty and a corrupt, unjust, and misery-inducing political system, and his family defends him.
  • There is a deliberate focus away from big-name stars, complex psychological themes and issues, and intricate plots and action.
  • This film attempts to depict true poverty and economic hardship as it really was in one city at a given time in history: postwar Rome in 1948, which had been physically and economically decimated following the war.
  • Bicycle Thieves is consistent and believable in its approach to realism: There is no contrived happy ending or resolution, and bad things happen to good people. What a great gift that is—the truth.
  • To put the film in proper context, consider that Americans didn’t often get to view pictures about poor people in this clear and close a focus before; even films made during and set in the Great Depression often softened the blow when impoverished characters were showcased, and almost always a happy denouement was included.
    • Charles Burnett, essayist for the Criterion Collection version of this film, wrote: “I was moved by how ordinary people were able to express so much humanity. The story achieved in very simple terms what I was looking to do in film: humanize those watching. (It) has the quality and intention of a documentary. It is totally unromantic. The characters are just ordinary people, and the film gives the impression you are watching life unfold before you. It is entertaining, but that is not the goal. Its goal is to make audiences aware of a particular social condition that needs a political solution. It is clear that it was made as a tool for change.”

What themes or messages are explored in Bicycle Thieves?

  • The power of family unity and love over materialism, capitalism, and suffering.
  • The search for hope and faith (not necessarily religious faith, but perhaps faith in humanity) in a world that seems faithless; consider that Antonio is hunting for a Fides bicycle, with the word “Fides” meaning “faith” in Italian.
  • Social conscience: It’s our duty as neighbors, acquaintances, citizens, and even bystanders to help our fellow human, regardless of his or her social stature.
  • Class struggle: This is a film about the division and disparity among social classes. We are shown how the working poor and bourgeois coexist.

Similar films

  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Rome, Open City
  • Germany Year Zero
  • Furrows
  • Pather Pachali
  • Nights of Cabiria
  • The 400 Blows
  • Films with cities featured as a major character, including Wings of Desire and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
  • Children of Heaven
  • Rockers
  • Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
  • Children of Heaven
  • Life is Beautiful
  • Beijing Bicycle
  • Kid With a Bike

Other works by De Sica

  • Shoeshine
  • Umberto D
  • The Earrings of Madame de…
  • Two Women

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A marital mess snowballing out of control

Monday, May 31, 2021

Some films make great date movies you can enjoy with your significant other. Force Majeure is not one of them. That’s because what you see unfold between the husband and wife in this story could easily be applied as a “what-if” scenario to your relationship, causing your partner to possibly question what you would do in the same situation. Nevertheless, Force Majeure, directed and written by Ruben Östlund, makes for great debate and a terrific picture to discuss in a group context, as our CineVerse club did last week (click here for a recording of our group chat). Here’s a summary of our talking points:

What struck you as interesting, unique, or memorable about this movie?

  • Tonally, it intricately shifts between heavy and ponderous drama and biting satire, forcing us to often laugh at and not necessarily empathize or connect with these characters.
    • Slant critic Abhimanyu Das wrote: “Despite the weight of the philosophical questions being pondered, Östlund and his cast also display the ability to mine comedy from the unlikeliest corners. Force Majeure is as sustained an exercise in cringe-inducing humor as anything produced by Larry David or Ricky Gervais, and arguably more controlled, turning on a dime between exquisitely calibrated laughs and unsettling emotional violence. Heated exchanges are abruptly rendered hilarious by cutting away to a reaction shot or by a change in the participants’ emotional register. A stony-faced janitor appears at the most inopportune moments to witness, gargoyle-like, some of the characters’ more hysterical outbursts.”
  • The filmmakers opt for interesting approaches. For example, they often show the characters and their arguments either from a far distance or intimately close; the avalanche scene is a continuous 4 ½ minute take without edits and framed from a distance so that it doesn’t draw attention to the father’s actions; the camera doesn’t look away from characters during tense or uncomfortable scenes, forcing us to linger on cringeworthy moments. The filmmakers don’t seem to be picking a side here; instead, we are allowed to draw our own conclusions about these characters and the controversy.
  • Also, the story is segmented into acts separated by title cards that indicate the day of the trip, stirring Vivaldi strings are heard sporadically throughout the film, and interspersed exterior shots of the stark wilderness – all adding portentousness and creating a sense of foreboding. These techniques create an ironic effect when you consider that no one dies or is even physically hurt and this relationship challenge is presumably salvageable.
  • The director said that this movie was inspired by an incident in which a Swedish couple – his friends – vacationed in Latin America; the duo was having dinner when gunmen burst into the restaurant and began firing. Instead of protecting his spouse, the husband ducked for cover. The shocked wife couldn’t let this failure go, proceeding to retell the tale to her friends time and again. Östlund later researched couples who survived disasters like shipwrecks and tsunamis and discovered that a high proportion of these partners end up divorcing.

Themes crafted into Force Majeure

  • Gender role reversals and expectations. Thomas seemingly acts contrary to expected masculine and macho ways, and Ebba demonstrates that she doesn’t always play the role of the protective matriarch or polite female stranger. Likewise, her friend Charlotte proves to be a promiscuous player like many would expect a man would be.
  • What does it mean to be a man and to exhibit masculinity in the modern age? Thomas and Mats are continually emasculated and forced to question their manhood, sex appeal, and motivations. This film explores the gap between what men project and assume about themselves and their true natures. The movie suggests that most men are inherently flawed because they try too hard to live up to an idealized standard and won’t be honest with themselves and others about their faults.
  • Relationships can be a catastrophe waiting to happen. Much like an avalanche that can snowball out of control, a flawed marriage or relationship built on shaky grounds can crumble suddenly or at least prove seriously vulnerable.
  • “The clash between our attempts to control nature, whether of landscapes or feelings, and the inevitability with which the world, and our own fallibility, confound and leave a stranded,” according to Jonathan Romney, film critic with The Guardian.
  • The picture also challenges the audience by asking: What would you do in this situation? What are you capable of in a crisis? Would you protect your loved ones during a catastrophe? Would you question and doubt your partner if they didn’t live up to your expectations? Would you deny any culpability? What should happen when one partner spectacularly flops in his or her obligations to his family and children and subsequently can’t acknowledge his or her failure?

Similar works

  • The Shining
  • The Loneliest Planet
  • Films by Michael Haneke, including Hidden, Funny Games, White Ribbon, and Amour
  • Films by Ingmar Bergman, including Scenes From a Marriage, that also suggest the “silence of God”
  • Downhill
  • Perfect Strangers
  • The Vanishing

Other films by Ruben Ostlund

  • Involuntary
  • Play
  • The Square
  • Triangle of Sadness

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Rhythm in your bloodstream

Monday, May 24, 2021

You don’t need a stethoscope to know that the cardiac muscle can pump up the volume when pushed hard. And the same is true of our emotional core, as evidenced in a feel-good film like Hearts Beat Loud, which will get your feelings flowing and your toe tapping. The CineVerse faithful performed a cinematic cardiogram when we explored this movie last week (listen to a group discussion of this picture by clicking here), arriving at these observations:

What about this film left an impression on you, good or bad?

  • The cast is impressive for a small independent feature, boasting Toni Collette, Ted Danson, and Blythe Danner in supporting roles. Nick Offerman as Frank and Kiersey Clemons as Sam are perfectly cast as the main players.
  • It’s nice to see character and personality diversity in a romantic comedy, as evidenced by the personage of Sam, who is both multiethnic and lesbian. It’s also a relief to see that these two traits don’t have to become super-serious subplots.
  • The actual songs written for the picture and performed by the actors are all, surprisingly, good, with the titular tune standing out as particularly well-crafted and memorable.
  • The filmmakers don’t linger excessively on manipulative emotional beats; a different director may have played the maudlin, cloying, or sentimental notes too long or too emphatically, for example. This isn’t the most inspirational movie you’ve ever seen, but it’s also not the most melancholy or mushy, either.
  • As a testament to its streamlined writing, the characters don’t engage in excessive dialogue, superfluous exposition, or predictable patterns. For instance, we aren’t told upfront that Sam’s mother is dead, or how she died; we learn it contextually and organically.

Themes at play

  • Turning life’s conundrums into art.
  • The connective and bonding power of music, performance, and art, as we see demonstrated by the record store gig, the karaoke singing, and the spontaneous exuberance felt when writing and rehearsing songs.
  • Role reversals: Ironically, Sam seems more mature, resolute, and self-secure than her father Frank.
  • Growing up while refusing to grow old. Frank is preparing to send his daughter off to college, suggesting that it’s time for her to mature into adulthood and responsibility, and yet it’s Frank who needs to do the same. By collaborating artistically and indulging their love for music together, Frank and Sam can remain young at heart and connected.
  • Multi-generational challenges and mid-life crises. Frank’s mother is becoming more dependent on him, while his daughter is proving to be more independent. Frank yearns for the opposite: Sam needing him more and his mother needing him less.
  • Change is inevitable, and it can be surprisingly good and beneficial. Frank and Sam are each at a crossroads, having to decide their respective futures. What they choose to do will have positive and negative consequences.
  • Moving on without forgetting the past. Frank must learn to let go of his musical ambitions and forge a different future for himself—one that may involve less music playing and promoting. But he may be able to salvage the relationship with Leslie, his landlord, in his next act. And Sam decides to go to UCLA and study medicine instead of staying in Red Hook and going on tour with her father; but the last scene shows that she has not surrendered some of her musical dreams.
  • “Let’s put on a show,” which is a theme that goes back to the early days of the cinema.
  • Trying to understand matters of the heart—both literally and figuratively. The film opens with Sam learning about the anatomy and function of the heart organ, which underscores her passion for wanting to become a doctor, and it continues with her exploring emotional depths and layers of the heart with her girlfriend and father.

Similar works

  • High Fidelity
  • Empire Records
  • Begin Again
  • Like Father
  • One More Time

Other films by Brett Haley

  • The New Year
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams
  • The Hero
  • All the Bright Places
  • All Together Now

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I spy a thrilling espionage film

Wednesday, May 19, 2021


Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold depicts cold, hard facts about Cold War agents and operatives, sourced from an acclaimed text by an author (John le Carré) who wrote from firsthand experience. Our CineVerse group unsealed the dossier on this cinematic document last week and surmised the following reflections (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What did you find interesting, unpredictable, noteworthy, or curious about this picture?

  • This is credited as one of the first movies to depict real-world espionage as “neither glamorous nor honorable,” according to Slant Magazine writer Chuck Bowen, who called it “an uncompromising look at a dehumanizing profession.”
  • This shows the gritty, dark, unglamorous side of being a government agent, with a character, lifestyle, and mission that runs counter to the seductive and adventurous mythmaking of James Bond.
  • Richard Burton has rarely been better as a man with hidden motivations or a lack thereof: the ultimate poker-faced spy we want to trust as the man two steps ahead of everyone else but whom we learn is out-of-the-know on many crucial matters, a chess piece who gets played by Control and suffers a crushing twist of fate.
  • It was shot in black-and-white at a time when most studios were opting for color. But debatably, this monochromatic palette serves the film tonally and thematically, suggesting enigmatic shades of gray that match this world and its characters.
  • Interestingly, Burton and Claire Bloom previously were lovers; at the time of filming, Burton was married to Elizabeth Taylor. If you detect any chemistry between Alec and Nan, this may help explain it.
  • This is a convoluted plot that requires paying close attention. Consider that we know only as much as Alec, and the fact that he learns he’s “out in the cold” from what Control intends means that we also learn new information when Alec does; it’s as much a surprise to him as it is to us.
  • There is virtually no comic relief and no lovemaking scenes.

Themes found in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

  • There’s little difference between the West versus the East. They both are capable of committing unethical acts of violence and betrayal in the name of patriotic duty or national security.
  • The human casualties and collateral damage of war – even a Cold War.
  • Do the ends justify the means? What do all these espionage maneuvers gain the players involved, most of whom are not told the full truth of what they’re involved in? Knights on the chessboard like Alec as well as pawns like Nan prove expendable, which begs the question: Why do this kind of work? What’s the point? And will their efforts even make a difference?
  • You have to stand for and believe in something or life can prove meaningless.
    • Recall the story Alec tells Nan about the two trucks that converge on a road and crush a car carrying a family caught between. DVD Talk reviewer Jamie S. Rich wrote: “Though he thinks that the point of the story is that the mighty, interchangeable forces of world government always trample the innocent underfoot as they rush for power, the true message is one that everyone else is trying to teach him: You can’t stay in the middle, one must choose a side. It doesn’t have to be either of the great behemoths or even either side of the Wall they have built to separate their ideologies, it can be taking a stand against both of them in defense of the station wagon. You have to stand for something. If you don’t, you will find yourself caught in no man’s land.” Arguably, by choosing to remain on the East Berlin side of the wall with his dead lover, Alec decides to take a stand – one that he knows will end in his death.
  • Alienation, inaccessibility, and unfulfillment.
    • Chuck Bowen of Slant Magazine wrote: “To be a spy in Le Carré’s fiction, and the author famously lived a bit of what he writes, is to have knowledge that alienates you from the rest of the world. The knowledge you possess, as a le Carré spy, only underlines how much you still don’t know, and this realization transforms life into a series of stifling paradoxes: The world is huge, yet claustrophobically contained in an endless procession of anonymous bars and backrooms, and every problem reveals a hundred more upon its solution, like a great hydra. In other words, the Le Carré spy ultimately knows that he knows nothing, and that perhaps there’s no overriding Something to know, which might be as close as a bureaucracy can come to proving that God doesn’t exist.”

Similar films

  • The James Bond movies
  • Other film adaptations of le Carré novels, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama, and The Constant Gardener
  • Bridge of Spies
  • The Ipcress File
  • The Lives of Others
  • The Manchurian Candidate

Other films directed by Martin Ritt

  • Hud
  • Hombre
  • The Long Hot Summer
  • Sounder
  • Norma Rae

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Kane's reign now spans 80 years

Sunday, May 16, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #35, host Erik Martin takes an extensive tour through Xanadu with three special guests to celebrate the 80th birthday of what many still consider to be the best film ever made: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles, originally released in May 1941.

This king-sized installment features interviews with Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, TCM's senior director of original programming Scott McGee, and film historian, professor, and author Joseph McBride. Collectively, 
they examine why Citizen Kane is worth honoring all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film today, and more. 

To listen to this episode, click 
here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.
Michael Phillips, Scott McGee, and Joseph McBride
Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at anchor.fm/cineversary and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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When in Venice, do as the Venetians do

Monday, May 10, 2021

Katharine Hepburn fans smitten with her acting prowess would probably enjoy watching her read from the phone book. Fortunately, she’s asked to do a lot more in David Lean’s Summertime, a 1955 romance that plays like a travelogue for a bucket list trip to Italy. In fact, Hepburn is present in virtually every scene of this movie, although she accomplishes much with simple body language instead of talky exposition on the joys and laments of love.

Our CineVerse group took a trip to Venice, the waterlogged land of gondolas and gothic architecture, this past week to explore Summertime (even though we are still firmly fixed in the spring season) and came away with several suppositions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Here’s a recap of our Q&A conversation.

What did you find different, unexpected, memorable, or curious about Summertime?

  • It’s directed by David Lean, the man known for major epics to come afterward like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India, yet this is a simpler, more intimate film with a very small cast. However, Lean demonstrated 10 years earlier with his direction of Brief Encounter that he was a master of the romantic drama. He once remarked that this was his favorite of all of his films.
  • The movie and your estimation of it depends a great deal on two factors:
    1. The performance of Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Jane. Rarely has Hepburn been better, accomplishing so much with nonverbal acting and moments of quiet reflectivity.
    2. Shooting on location in Venice, which serves as a picturesque character unto itself and undoubtedly swayed countless Americans to visit Italy and Europe.
  • For a romance picture, this movie strays from formula: First, Hepburn was around age 48 at the time of this filming, long past her youthful attractive prime; Jane is not given a romantic interest until the second half of the film (when Renato is finally introduced); her unexplained decision to depart for home occurs abruptly, bringing the story to a sudden, quick conclusion that can feel unleavened and too ambiguous and bittersweet for many viewers’ tastes; and Renato, though he predictably chases her down before her train pulls away, doesn’t succeed in handing her his gift or convincing her to return to him.
  • This film would’ve been controversial and groundbreaking for a mid-1950s movie watched by American audiences.
    • Ponder that the story depicts its two infidelities – one involving Renato and Jane, the other involving Eddie (the married artist) and a mistress – that are not punished.
    • Additionally, it was rare then, as it is now, to place a middle-aged woman at the center of a steamy film romance.
    • Also, ruminate on the film’s most controversial line, which was censored in America at the time due to its suggestiveness: “You are a hungry child who is given ravioli to eat. ‘No,’ you say, ‘I want beefsteak.’ My dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli.”

Themes crafted into Summertime

  • American versus European morals and sensibilities. The British Film Institute wrote: “The theme here is a traditional one: New World Puritanism confronts European opportunism; the innocent American surrenders to the charm and experience of the Old World, and at the same time retreats from its implications of corruption.”
  • “Two is the loveliest number in the world” – which Jane says aloud at one point in the movie. Consider how lonely and unappreciated she is before she meets Renato.
  • Every person, no matter how plain, unglamorous or common, is a unique vessel for untapped love.
  • Interestingly, the red goblet Jane treasures lacks a duplicate to make it a pair; Jane is like that red goblet, but she quickly loses interest in finding a match for it when she learns how common and relatively valueless these red goblets are—which makes her distrust Renato, who built up the goblet’s significance and rarity in her own mind.
  • Similarly, Jane chooses a relatively un-ostentatious flower for Renato to buy her. When she loses the flower, Renato tries hard to get it back, despite its practical insignificance, and even chases after her at the train station with a substitute similar flower at the end of the story, suggesting that Jane is a delicate, precious thing that’s hard to hold onto.

Similar films

  • Brief Encounter
  • Before Sunrise
  • Now, Voyager
  • To Catch a Thief (which also features a sexually suggestive fireworks scene following passionate kissing)
  • Rome Adventure
  • Summer of ’42
  • Light in the Piazza
  • A Certain Smile
  • Three Coins in the Fountain

Other works by David Lean

  • Brief Encounter
  • Oliver Twist
  • Great Expectations
  • Hobson’s Choice
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Doctor Zhivago

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This "Stranger" is friendly to classic film fans

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Arguably the worst movie made by Orson Welles would probably be the best film helmed by a lesser director. Possible case in point: The Stranger, Welles’ 1946 noirish thriller that lacks many of the stylistic flourishes and storytelling derring-do that distinguished his two previous films. Regardless of its shortcomings, The Stranger satisfies on several levels. Our CineVerse band examined it in detail last week (click here to listen to a recording of that discussion); here’s a review of our talking points.


What did you find distinctive, different, unexpected, or curious about The Stranger?

  • Despite being directed by Orson Welles, the filmmaker behind Citizen Kane, this movie may disappoint based on the expectations you have for Welles to wow you with his directorial choices and artistic genius. First-time viewers may anticipate the kind of stylistic innovation, groundbreaking narrative techniques, and visual panache that Welles was known for based on his other works, especially the two predecessors Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
  • But the truth is that he had fallen far out of favor by Hollywood and filmgoers after the failures of those two films, and he was given an opportunity by producer Sam Spiegel to direct his third film, but only if Welles could bring the picture in on time and under budget. Wells accomplished both goals, although he had to compromise his artistic vision on the project, abandon lofty ambitions for the picture, and acquiesce to Spiegel on several decisions.
    • Yet, the movie still showcases Welles’ brilliance with its atmospheric high-contrast lighting, deep-focus photography, unconventional camera angles, ambitious crane and tracking shots, long takes (such as the shot through the woods that ends with Kindler strangling Meineke), fast-paced finale montage, compositions featuring silhouettes, and reflective shots using mirrored surfaces.
    • Welles builds tension through technique (such as using tracking shots to suggest that the players are unable to evade their pursuers and the townspeople’s interests) as well as by building our expectation for Kindler being sniffed out by Wilson and the residents of Harper. The film becomes a clever cat and mouse game type story.
    • Ironically, this is been cited as the only film directed by Wells to turn a profit.
  • This is the first Hollywood movie to show documentary footage of the Holocaust, which would have been eye-opening to American audiences at the time.
  • Interestingly, the screenplay, though credited to Anthony Veiller, was rewritten by director John Huston and Welles himself.

Themes explored in The Stranger

  • Duplicitous doubling/twinning: Kindler leads a double life, while Wilson masquerades as someone other than a Nazi hunter; Wilson and Meineke are opposites but arrive at the same time in the small town of Harper; and both Wilson and Rankin enjoy tinkering with clocks.
  • A man running out of time. Kindler demonstrates skill in repairing the clock tower and prides himself on clockwork precision as a planner. But as a cosmic irony, he is destroyed by the very hands of time when one of the clock tower figures fatally skewers him through with its sword.
    • Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “For Rankin/Kindler, bringing the broken clock back to life might represent getting the gears of the Nazi mechanism working in this new, unsuspecting country. The clock tower becomes the stage for risky confrontations and Kindler’s last stand.”
  • Evil can hide in plain sight and infiltrate anywhere – even small-town America. Harper, Connecticut, is a safe and sociable little burg where all the residents know each other personally: the ideal environment in which a monster like Kindler can hide and gradually be accepted without suspicion, or at least that’s his plan. But he quickly learns that it’s harder to find safe refuge in a small town than he anticipated and even the naive, unsuspecting rubes can turn on you quickly when they learn the truth.
  • Even the people closest to you can turn out to be complete strangers. Mary eventually learns that the man she has married is an unknown outsider, the kind of person she would never expect to marry. Consider that the title “The Stranger” could refer to up to three characters: Kindler, but also Wilson or Meineke, who each recently enter Harper as outsiders who attract attention from the locals.

Similar works

  • Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt
  • Mid-1940s films that suggest the rise of a new Third Reich, including Notorious, Gilda, and Cornered
  • Salem’s Lot
  • Twin Peaks

Other important films directed by Orson Welles

  • Citizen Kane
  • The Magnificent Ambersons
  • The Lady From Shanghai
  • Othello
  • Touch of Evil
  • Chimes at Midnight

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The devil is in the duplicity

Monday, April 26, 2021

Jake Gyllenhaal works twice as hard to impress us with his acting chops in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, a movie that can cause you to do a double-take time and again with its themes of identity blending, disturbing deceit, and arachnid anxiety. It’s a difficult picture to decipher, but patient scrutiny will yield pivotal clues that make for a fascinating analysis and conversation with fellow film lovers. CineVerse got caught in its tangled web last week and arrived at the following notions (to hear a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).
 

How are Adam and Anthony similar yet different?

  • Adam is a frustrated college teacher: He clearly doesn’t make much money, his girlfriend doesn’t enjoy or want to have sex with him, and his students don’t appear engaged during his classes.
  • Anthony is much the opposite: He’s wealthy, successful, beloved by his pregnant wife, and apparently happy and satisfied. But unlike Adam, he cheats on his partner, enjoys playing the role of sexual predator, and attends secret sex clubs.

What is the proof that this story should not be taken literally?

  • Adam and Anthony are actually the same person – a man suffering from a split personality syndrome who is married to a pregnant wife but cheating on her with his girlfriend. Adam is the man Anthony ultimately will become by choosing to remain with his pregnant spouse: tamed and reliable but unfulfilled and disempowered. He chooses to kill off the negative “Anthony” part of his personality (and end his philandering) by crashing the car. But he identifies Helen as the empowered female “other” that will threaten and devour him when he sees her as a giant spider.
  • Proof of this: Helen refers to Anthony having a good day at school; Adam’s mother suggests that he should quit movie acting; Adam and Anthony are never seen together with a third person present; Anthony in front of a mirror rehearses what he’s going to say to Adam; what are the odds that a person has an identical non-twin who also has an identical scar in the same location and are living in the same city?
  • Blogger Ryan Thompson wrote: “By using the concept of doubling, Villeneuve is able to set up two contrasting characters, one who has an unfulfilling life and one who is fulfilled, in order to assert the idea that, for men, marriage and building a family results in indulging in the mundane and giving up on personal desires… the film is implying men have better lives when they are not focusing on building a family. Yet, interestingly enough, the film's resolution results in Anthony dying in a car accident and Adam choosing to live with Anthony’s wife, suggesting that even though Anthony understands the disadvantages of being married, he is still drawn to it.”
  • With this reading of the film, the story serves as more of a metaphor or allegory than a narrative that should be taken literally (as with films like The Lobster). Proof of this idea is the gigantic arachnid walking amongst the skyscrapers, which isn’t really happening in this story but which serves as a visual symbol of Adam’s growing dread and a foreshadowing of the last scene in the bedroom.
  • Despite discarding his Anthony persona, Adam will repeat the same mistakes as Anthony, as he’s chosen to use the new key to revisit the sex club—even though he’s chosen to stick with Helen.

Themes and motifs examined

  • Chaos is order yet undeciphered. Even in the most convoluted of tales there is truth, structure, and meaning if you opt to untangle the thematic webs. Adam needs to remove chaos from his life by choosing a life of order and predictability.
  • Male fears of commitment, surrendering personal ambitions, loss of individual expression, losing sexual agency, and acquiescing to marriage, parenthood, and domesticity.
  • Females, including Anthony’s pregnant wife and the upside-down-walking spider head woman, are equated with arachnid-like creatures that frighten Adam.
  • Creeping totalitarianism. Forrest Wickman of Slate wrote: “I think ultimately it’s a parable about what it’s like to live under a totalitarian state without knowing it… The central irony in all of this is that even the main character, though he’s an expert on the ways of totalitarian governments, doesn’t see the web that’s overtaken the city until he’s already stuck in it.”
  • Doubling, twinning, and doppelgängers. Anthony and Adam are identical; Anthony has two names; their significant others also look alike; Adam tells his class “Everything in history happens twice,” and that the first go-round is a tragedy while the second is a farce;
  • Spiders, as evidenced by the giant spider on the horizon, the spider-faced woman in the dream, the tarantula stepped on by the high-heeled woman in the sex club, the giant spider in the film’s last scene, the cobweb appearance of the broken windshield, the pregnant wife (whose belly resembles the bloated abdomen of a spider), and the transit system’s overhead lines. Because so many people have built-in fears of spiders, they serve as a powerful and effective visual motif throughout the movie.

Other films and works of literature that come to mind

  • Works of David Lynch, including Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Eraserhead
  • Puzzle films like Memento and Inception
  • Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Through a Glass Darkly
  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • Adaptation
  • Fight Club
  • Shutter Island
  • Dead Ringers
  • Sisters
  • Orphan Black
  • Freaky Friday
  • Dostoevsky’s The Double
  • Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Other films by Denis Villeneuve

  • Arrival
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Sicario
  • Prisoners

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Generation gap or generation trap?

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

His name may not be as familiar to moviegoers as much as contemporaries like Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, or Wes Anderson, but Noah Baumbach and his works have come to represent some of the finest qualities inherent in independent cinema and filmmaking by Generation X. Speaking of, the latter cohort is not-so-flatteringly represented in Baumbach’s 2014 outing While We’re Young, although millennials appear to get the brunt of the criticism in this intelligent dramedy starring Ben Stiller, Adam Driver, Naomi Watts, and Amanda Seyfried. Read on for a CineVerse-style analysis of this picture (and click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film).

What did you find interesting, offbeat, unexpected, rewarding, or memorable about this film?

  • The cast is impressive, featuring two Oscar-nominated heavyweights in Driver and Watts as well as Stiller, Charles Grodin, and the curious casting of Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys and Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul, and Mary.
  • The story is not predictable. The foursome doesn’t reunite by the end of the film, the spouses don’t have affairs with their friend’s spouses, Jamie doesn’t really get any comeuppance, and Josh isn’t exactly vindicated in his takedown of Jamie or in his career ambitions.
  • The narrative and characters are funny, but the point isn’t to produce a laugh riot here like previous Ben Stiller comedies.
    • The New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote: “Mr. Baumbach is, as usual, a piquant observer of the manners and morals of the various demographic subsets of the white, urban lower-upper-middle class. He is without peer among screenwriters as a composer of incisive, non-punchline-driven comic dialogue, and unrivaled among directors as a choreographer of fraught social encounters.”
  • Arguably, the female characters take more of a backseat here than their male counterparts. Cornelia and Darby aren’t as well fleshed-out or given as much emphasis as Josh and Jamie, which is unfortunate.
  • Some critics found fault with the movie’s preachiness about the flaws of the younger generation. Consider how you feel about Jamie – representational of millennials – by the end of the film; his character doesn’t appear redeemable, even though he is popular and successful. Also, ponder how you assess Darby by the film’s conclusion, as she chooses to split with Jamie and live life more on her terms; that can be construed as a more favorable interpretation of Generation Y.

Themes explored in While We’re Young

  • The generation gap and demographic conflicts. This film has its sights squarely on Gen Xers versus Gen Yers (millennials), although there’s also a schism explored between Boomers (personified by Leslie) and Gen Xers, which means the film can translate as a somewhat universal statement on the disparity between any earlier and subsequent generation.
  • Attempting to recapture your youth and remain at least young at heart
  • Accepting your limitations and finding a comfortable compromise with your unachievable ambitions. Josh realizes that he isn’t going to achieve all his dreams and that he’s running out of time to create any kind of legacy; he also acknowledges that the advice he’s been given by the older generation – represented by Leslie, his father-in-law, who advises him to edit his 10-year-old documentary film – is worth adapting to some degree. Cornelia, meanwhile, comes around to the idea of parenting and, with her husband, is preparing to adopt.
    • “Ultimately, this film is about to well-meaning people coming to grips with who they actually are versus who they’ve always thought they were supposed to be,” wrote Nashville Scene reviewer Noel Murray.
  • The rewards and risks of not staying in your lane. Josh and Cornelia at least briefly enjoy trying to act younger and more hip and associating themselves with the next generation who will eventually replace them. But debatably, they realize that there is wisdom in experience, reward in staying true to yourself and remaining committed to longtime friends, and dignity and grace in acknowledging that it’s okay to get older and make compromises—like the compromises that come with parenting.
    • Recall the text prologue of the film, taken from Isben’s The Master Builder; Solness expresses consternation about younger people, but is advised by a younger woman (Hilde) to “open the door and let them in.” Solness soon falls to his death from the tower he’s constructed. At the end of the film, the end credits include the Paul McCartney song Let 'Em In.

Similar films

  • All About Eve
  • Crimes and Misdemeanors
  • The Four Seasons
  • Broadcast News
  • The Overnight

Important works by Noah Baumbach

  • The Squid and the Whale
  • Greenberg
  • Francis Ha
  • Mistress America
  • Marriage Story

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90 reasons why "M" still stands for "masterpiece"

Sunday, April 18, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #34, host Erik Martin revisits Weimar Republic-era Germany to commemorate the 90th birthday of quite possibly that country's finest film export ever: Fritz Lang's M, originally released in May 1931 and starring Peter Lorre in his breakout performance as a serial killer of children. Accompanying Erik on this outing is Jan-Christopher Horakpast director of the UCLA film and television archive, former curator for the George Eastman Museum, previous director of archives/collections for Universal Studios, and longtime film scholar. Together, they investigate why M is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, and more.           
Jan-Christopher Horak

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at anchor.fm/cineversary and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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Honor thy father and mother -- and this Japanese masterpiece, too

Monday, April 12, 2021

Voted by directors as the greatest film of all time and the #3 best movie ever by critics, per a 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Tokyo Story stands as a towering cinematic achievement that accomplishes so much with so little when it comes to story and style—demonstrating that a minimalistic approach is often best for films  aimed directly at the heart. CineVerse studied this picture last week, arriving at several key findings and interpretations (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

Hallmarks of director Yasujiro Ozu’s style

  • Low camera angles, with cameras anchored merely three feet or so from the ground – a height amenable to ideally framing subjects sitting or kneeling on a Japanese tatami mat.
  • An unmoving camera; Ozu rarely used tracking, panning, dollying, craning, or other camera movements, instead choosing to let visual emphasis rest on his characters and their movements or positioning within the shot.
  • Transitions between scenes using seemingly random long shots of outdoor environments, including clouds, shorelines, cityscapes, and other vistas. Where other filmmakers may use dissolves, fade-outs, fade-ins, and wipes to transition between sequences, Ozu preferred poetically visual still life-type shots.
  • Placing the camera between two subjects to convey a dialogue scene. Rather than use the traditional Hollywood over-the-shoulder shot back-and-forth between characters, Ozu puts us at the center of the conversation, creating more intimacy. His subjects often look directly at the camera—thereby addressing the viewer—when they speak to an adjacent character.
  • Remaining on a character for the entirety of their speech. When a character says something to another character, Ozu’s camera doesn’t stray from that subject or introduce a reverse shot showing the opposite character’s nonverbal reaction.
  • Not allowing any single character to dominate a given scene.
  • Letting shots breathe by lingering in an empty room or space before or after characters enter or exit the scene. This defied the Hollywood rule of “invisible editing” in which the cuts between shots were meant to be seamless, smooth, and often quick.
  • Letting situations and conversational scenes unfold naturally and organically and choosing to not crowd his stories with subplots, turning points, or scenes that would detract from the strong focus on emotions and relationships. For example, we aren’t shown the grandparents’ journeys on the train, their actual visits to the Atami baths, or Tomi’s moment of falling gravely ill. We learn about these things simply through exchanges of dialogue. Also, ponder how the city of Tokyo itself is not extensively shown, including its landmarks and famous places.
  • Ozu’s narratives are minimalistic, uncomplicated, unpretentious, unfussy, relatively tranquil and calm, and laced with wistfulness.

What elements from Tokyo Story made a strong impression on you?

  • The entire story is infused from start to finish with a tone of melancholy.
  • Slant Magazine’s Chuck Bowen wrote: “underneath the film’s ostensible logline, which involves an aging couple’s trek to see their adult children, resides a large cast of characters lost in a dense thicket of disappointment, tension, and unquantifiable and unresolved emotional, political, and cultural fallout. The film is an epic disguised as a short story, or, more specifically, it documents the largely unceremonious end of an epic that’s mostly unseen. The source of the film’s brilliance and of its considerable pathos resides in how gradually and subtly Ozu transforms the domestic, “simple” quotidian into the stuff of great universal tragedy.”
  • This is the most meager of tales; Tokyo Story has a narrative that can be quickly summarized. But the plot is not the point: The value is in the way the characters are written and performed and in how the filmmakers choose to strip away any flashiness or stylistic grandeur, letting a simple story hook itself into your conscience by focusing on the character’s often unspoken internal struggles and the fractured family dynamics.
  • Ozu avoids painting these characters in black and white; each has shades of gray. For instance, the father appears docile and friendly, but it’s revealed that he was a problematic alcoholic when his children were younger. Eldest daughter Shige would seem to be an irredeemable, ungrateful, and materialistic woman but she breaks down in tears multiple times when her mother dies and is concerned that her father might succumb to his old drinking ways. Additionally, the children aren’t evil or unforgivable: Many of the reasons they have for not being able to spend time with their parents are valid and understandable.

Themes built into Tokyo Story

  • The generation gap, and how it’s usually inevitable that adult children drift away from their parents physically, emotionally, morally, and value-wise.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “It is about our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning. It isn't that our lives keep us too busy for our families. It's that we have arranged them to protect us from having to deal with big questions of love, work, and death. We escape into truisms, small talk, and distractions. Given the opportunity at a family gathering to share our hopes and disappointments, we talk about the weather and watch TV.”
  • Every clan has skeletons in its closet – some that may come back to haunt the family.
  • The dissolution of the traditional Japanese family and its value system, replaced by a less sensitive and more frenetic, modernized, industrialized, and Westernized culture. Consider that, following the new Civil Code instituted in 1948, much of Japan had adopted Western capitalist notions and abandoned older traditions and mores.
  • Life is often imperfect and unsatisfactory. Recall Noriko’s comment to Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?” Also, remember how the grandparents commented privately to themselves about their dissatisfaction in their grandchildren, the fact that their eldest was not a successful doctor, and how their eldest daughter’s attitude had changed for the worse.
  • The inability to talk frankly with loved ones about problems. Even though Shukishi consistently semi-smiles, nods, and utters words of acknowledgment, like “yes,” we discern through context that he’s subtly hiding many of his problematic emotions. Also, the children engage in ample small talk with their parents.

Similar films

  • Make Way for Tomorrow
  • Ikiru
  • The Straight Story
  • Sansho the Bailiff
  • Yi (2000) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991) by Edward Yang
  • Still Walking
  • Driveways

Other important films directed by Yasijuro Ozu

  • Late Spring
  • Early Summer
  • An Autumn Afternoon
  • Late Autumn
  • Floating Weeds

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Pushing the boundaries of the Hays Code

Monday, April 5, 2021

For a classic film, Dodsworth doesn’t get much attention nowadays, even though it’s arguably one of the finest Hollywood works of the 1930s. CineVerse tried to correct this oversight by studying the movie last week and arriving at the following observations (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What struck you as noteworthy, different, unforeseen, or curious about Dodsworth?

  • This is a rare example of a Hollywood film in the early years of the Hays code that addressed controversial topics like infidelity and divorce. In fact, Dodsworth is credited as the first picture of the early censorship era that permitted a male character to leave his marriage for another woman without being punished for this action. Typically in movies of this era, philandering while tied to the bonds of matrimony ultimately resulted in major repercussions or comeuppances for that character.
  • Dodsworth is credited for avoiding a soap opera approach to an otherwise soapy type of story. It boasts a screenplay and direction that is sophisticated yet subtle and nuanced without being sensationalistic. If the filmmakers could have chosen to include melodramatic subplots or sudden twists like a suicide attempt by Sam or a miscarriage that would have left grandma Fran feeling guilty. Instead, they kept faithful to the source material by Sinclair Lewis and presented both Sam and Fran as flawed yet approachable, understandable characters who each have good and bad sides, although Sam comes off as much more sympathetic because he doesn’t cheat on his spouse or indulge in immoral flirtations.
    • Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “What's difficult to appreciate now about William Wyler's achievement in Dodsworth is that he approaches the subject with a mature attitude that isn't concerned with anything exploitative. The cast was made of big names, but not glamorous marquee bait. American audiences weren't used to being treated like thinking adults very often back then (don't ask about now) and responded to Dodsworth very positively.”
  • The filmmakers likely got this material past the censors thanks to its impressive pedigree: It was presented as a prestige picture made by an A-list producer, Samuel Goldwyn, and a highly respected director, William Wyler. And the book on which the story was based was written by Lewis, a revered figure in American literature. Because they were trying to adapt his tale faithfully, the Hays office likely let things slide.

Themes at play in Dodsworth

  • Fear of aging and living life to the fullest
  • Taking things for granted—like your spouse and her interests
  • The overriding power of love and familiarity. Despite being cuckolded by his wife, Sam can’t let her go and is willing to take her back until the very end of the story.
  • The ugly American abroad, and how Americans often can’t properly appreciate or adopt European culture and sensibilities; consider how Sam can’t pronounce Louvre, and how Fran doesn’t quite realize what her flirtatiousness can lead to. Also, think about how Fran is perhaps unfairly and callously but accurately sized up by Kurt’s mother.
  • Americans need to hold onto their values abroad. Fran yearns to live a carefree cosmopolitan lifestyle of infidelity overseas, courted by promiscuous Continentals, but ultimately ends up spurned and unhappy. Sam, meanwhile, finds love not with a European woman but instead an American expatriate living in Europe who doesn’t try to seduce him.
  • Karma and comeuppance.
  • To thine self be true. Sam ultimately learns to look after himself.

Other films that Dodsworth reminds us of

  • The Unsinkable Molly Brown
  • Summertime
  • Heartburn
  • Take This Waltz
  • Screwball comedies featuring the idle rich and their romances and remarriages like The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth, and Holiday

Other movies directed by William Wyler

  • Ben-Hur
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Roman Holiday
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Jezebel
  • The Little Foxes

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